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All images © David W. Bennett

 
 

This article first appeared in Lonely Planet, "Africa on a Shoestring"

IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF JURGEN SCHULTZ

by David W. Bennett

"But you must know Mr. Jurgen, he is your brother”, said the immigration officer excitedly. I was led into a thatched hut where a large ledger was opened in front of me “Voila”, said the officer, pointing to an entry on one of the pages.

It was true. Jurgen Schultz, nationality — German; mode of transport — foot, had, indeed, crossed the border between Gabon and the People's Republic of the Congo on November 8, 1977. But what connection did this have to me, standing in the same place, nearly three years later?Tanzania - Masai tribespeople near the Serengeti

I looked down at the ledger again. It was
a list of all non-African border crossers.
There were no entries between Jurgen's
name and my own, which was now being
inscribed. “Ah, yes,” I nodded, “Mr. Jurgen.”

This wasn't the first indication of the remoteness of my location I had received.
Traffic had become increasingly scarce since my departure from Libreville, the Gabonese capital, four days earlier. Although I was on the main international route between West and Equatorial Africa, I had waited all day for the vehicle which brought me to the border. Now, I faced a 20 kilometre walk to the first Congolese town.

Fortunately, a local who was making the same journey, agreed to take me with him. He knew a shortcut that would cut the distance by half. After fording a couple of streams and hacking our way through some dense jungle growth, we finally reached Ngongo, Congo. Ngongo was an almost fairy-tale village consisting of 100 well-made reed huts set in the midst of a hardwood rain forest. My guide took me directly to the village chief and soon I was shown to a hut. It was mine, for as long as I wanted. I was told that the last occupant, a Mr. Schultz had stayed there for more than two weeks.

Later, I was taken to the only stone building in the village, a combination store and bar. As bottles of beer were produced, I reasoned that they must have been delivered by some sort of vehicle. “It is true.” said the chief, “The beer truck will come tomorrow.” Reflecting on Jurgen's two week stay, I realized the word tomorrow meant simply, some time in the future.

I spent two days in Ngong, where, as an honoured guest, I was treated with warmth and friendliness. On the third day, a dilapidated truck, stocked with cases of beer, wheezed into the village.

“No problem,” said Pierre, the large, jovial driver, “I can take you 140 kilometres to Makabana. From there you can take a bus to Loubomo in time for the night train to Brazzaville.”

An hour later we set off, myself, Pierre, two helpers and several passengers. After a bone-wrenching ten kilometre ride we reached another village very similar to Ngongo. The arrival of the beer truck was the cause of much festivity. I was an honoured guest in this village also, and, two hours and two bottles of beer later, we were under way again.

This scene was to be repeated five times before nightfall. We covered no more than 50 kilometres and the beer had taken its toll. But what else could I do? An honoured guest can hardly refuse hospitality.

Finally, we stopped for the night. “This is my village”, said Pierre. “You must meet my wife and children. Come, we'll take some food and drink.”

I awoke the next morning with a crushing headache. It eased as the day became a repeat of the day before. We visited several villages and covered 100 kilometres by nightfall. Unfortunately, I was still not at my destination as 50 of those kilometres had been side-trips to villages off the main road.

Once again, Pierre took me to visit his wife and children. “I suppose you have a wife in Makabana, to,” I said jokingly. “How did you know that?” said Pierre, surprised. Then a glint of recognition came to his face. “You've been talking to Jurgen, haven't you? He must have told you.”

Now that I understood Pierre's timetable, I awoke the next morning confident of reaching my destination. We travelled quickly until, outside a large town called Kibangou, we were stopped at a police checkpoint. A stern-faced officer perused my passport. “You didn't get your passport stamped in Lobo.” he said, referring to a forgettable village 80 kilometres back down the road. “You will have to return there to get it stamped.”

My heart sank. Ten minutes of persistent argument proved fruitless. I would have to return to Lobo and God knows how many days that would take. Then I had a sudden inspiration. “The reason I didn't get my passport stamped,” I blurted, “is because Jurgen Schultz told me it was not necessary.” The officer's face lit up and he began to shake my hand vigorously.

After fifteen minutes of reminiscences about our non-mutual friend, I was allowed to continue my journey. At the other side of Kibangou, we came to a crossroads. “Just a quick trip down this side road, and then we can continue on.” said Pierre. Well aware of Pierre's quick trips, I diplomatically suggested I wait at the crossroads in the hope of securing a ride to Loubomo.

A half an hour later, a dusty pick-up truck screeched to a halt beside me. The driver, a middle-aged civil servant, was going directly to Loubomo. “It's 140 kilometre, so we'll be there in two hours.”, he said. As I reflected on my good fortune and the 140 kilometres I had just travelled, the man looked over at me. “A couple of years ago, I picked up another traveller quite like yourself...”

David W. Bennett © 1985 - 2000